Before Woody Allen made Annie Hall, the first in a long series of romantic comedies and/or personal dramas about neurotic New Yorkers (and, to a large degree, himself), he made a series of wildly funny absurdist comedies, of which Love and Death was probably the best. Dominated by knowing parodies of Russian literature with a dollop of Ingmar Bergman on the side, Love and Death is that rare satire that wears its smarts on its sleeve while still going for the belly laugh. While you have to be quite well-read to catch every literary reference, the movie still works if you don't get them, and for every joke about the philosophical nature of being and nothingness, there's another one along the lines of father's "valuable piece of land" (a chunk of sod he carries with him), and the dialogue is delightfully silly more often than it's profound. This is also where Allen's acknowledged fondness for Bob Hope gets its strongest public airing; Woody's performance as Boris Grushenko, "the young coward all St. Petersburg is talking about," owes a lot to the mixture of bravado and jumpiness that marked Hope's best work, and the story bears more than a passing resemblance to Hope's Monsieur Beaucaire (1946). While this wasn't the first film Allen made with Diane Keaton, it was the first one in which she seemed to be on an equal footing and not just a girlfriend-turned-leading lady. Keaton's an able straight woman for Allen's gags, and she fields a number of her own with a delicious deadpan aplomb (most notably distracting a Spanish dignitary with the question, "I'm having trouble adjusting my belt -- do you think you could come over here and hold my bosom for a while?"). Allen's next film was his Oscar-winning breakthrough Annie Hall, and, while his subsequent work was often more personal and emotionally involving than his early films, he was never funnier than in Love and Death.
by Mark Deming review